On the commentary track that accompanies the Criterion Collection’s new DVD version of RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven kicks things off by admitting that, on a first read of the film’s script, he declined the project, mistaking it for just another “B-level science fiction movie” from the Hollywood crap factories. Verhoeven’s comments are closely followed by those of producer Jon Davison, who imagines Verhoeven simply reading the first 20 pages of the script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner and then throwing the damn thing across the room. (From RoboCop, Verhoeven advanced to the far more swollen melodrama of Basic Instinct and Showgirls — his active philosophy where Hollywood crap is concerned seems to be “if you can’t beat them, join them.”)
Verhoeven credits his wife with a closer reading of the screenplay, leading to the realization that there was something very humanistic dwelling below the surface of this cruel urban potboiler. When Neumeier himself weighs in to describe the film as “fascism for liberals,” he’s only half joking. RoboCop is a grand guilty pleasure for cinephiles — a stops-out tub-thumper of an action movie that’s so brutal it’s scary, but which doubles as social commentary and stirs the viewer on its own melodramatic terms.
A major theme is greed and careerist machinations in the context of a privatized police force and a military-industrial complex gone absolutely nutso. RoboCop‘s world is one driven by the inexorability of the bottom line, one where the bestselling American car is a cheerful gas-guzzler called the “6000 SUX” and where TV programming that makes Benny Hill look like Robert Benchley inspires catch-phrases like “I’d buy that for a dollar.”
All of that is pretty funny, if not necessarily cutting-edge satire. But it’s the cynical backdrop for an ultimately optimistic story about humanity lost and regained. Neumeier calls it a story of “a sensitive cyborg with an identity crisis.”
Peter Weller plays the unfortunate cop Murphy, who’s sacrificed in the name of technological progress. When Murphy and partner Nancy Allen arrive at what looks like a toxic-waste-ridden abandoned steelyard, Murphy is captured and blasted to bits by the criminals. It’s a nasty scene, one whose most striking bits were trimmed for an R rating but have been restored in Criterion’s version. Verhoeven imagined it as a crucifixion, and shoots it with a carnal sort of reverence.
Murphy is “resurrected” as RoboCop, an experimental cybernetic version of a human being, with body armor and robotic limbs supporting the leftover bits of humanity. He seems to be inspired as much by the quintessentially American myth of Dirty Harry as by Judge Dredd, then something of a sensation in the world of British comics. (The Judge Dredd comic books were far, far better than the subsequent Stallone film, and exhibit a dryly comic sense of future “justice” that prefigured Neumeier’s screenplay to the extent that, as I recall, some comic book readers considered the film a rip-off.)
RoboCop’s journey to redemption, by vanquishing the criminals and giving his corporate overlords their violent comeuppance, is imagined with consistent sensitivity, humor, and an unerring instinct for the grossout. The participants in Criterion’s commentary track go on at some length about the enthusiasm of audience response to their film, and rightly so. When film students or serious fans want to analyze the ways that an action film can be made to push all the right buttons, they could scarcely do better than to look at RoboCop. From the script’s canny positioning of Murphy as a stainless steel underdog to the deft technical credits (makeup FX wunderkind Rob Bottin, who designed RoboCop, and stop-action guru Phil Tippett, who animated the surprisingly comic ED-209 urban-pacification droid, both made invaluable contributions), the film works on pretty much every level.
The film’s missteps are in its most obligatory scenes. The gang of bad guys led by a game Kurtwood Smith really isn’t very interesting, as villains go, and a few of the action sequences certainly would have benefited from a little more time and money. But even the clunkier scenes are buoyed by a guileless B-movie efficiency that keeps the picture rolling along.
Criterion’s essential DVD edition of the film is basically their 1994 laserdisc presented with no side breaks and gussied up with a couple of theatrical trailers. The image is quite good, although a brand-new transfer may have made the picture pop off the screen a bit more. (Like all Criterion releases to date, it is a non-anamorphic transfer, which raises the ire of videophiles who have invested in widescreen TV sets.) An exhaustive article on the creation of the film from an old issue of Cinefex magazine is reprinted here with appropriate sound effects, still frames, and video clips, answering just about any question you could have about the film’s formidable FX work. Also included are storyboards for two scenes that were deleted before shooting began. Most engrossing of all is the commentary track, which covers everything from location shooting in Dallas to what exactly Verhoeven was thinking, anyway.
Late in the film, Verhoeven proffers one striking image that’s composed to suggest that Murphy/RoboCop is actually walking on water. While that turned the Christ metaphor up another notch, it was never clear what, exactly, was the point. In his commentary, Verhoeven is finally allowed to explain that it has something to do with his thoughts on Christianity in the contemporary United States, and the ways that people who claim to be doing God’s will advocate violence, which was never part of the original Christian teachings. Well, whatever. That’s probably too much subtext for one movie. Far more stirring, and easier to swallow, is our vivid imagining of RoboCop’s pain as he’s gunned down by his peers in the Detroit Police Force, who are acting on orders from the very top. As RoboCop crawls toward the camera, listing like a wounded animal, audience identification with his plight becomes complete. In a split second, the movie’s points about violence, hypocrisy, and humanity all crystallize in one perfect, mythmaking image.